A New Spin on App Design: Literacy Play for Children AND Parents

December 7, 2020

Right now, when the norm is to be working remotely from home with children schooling and playing in the next room, educational children’s apps are taking on a stronger role as digital babysitters. Since most educational apps are designed for independent play, they encourage individual learning and keep children occupied when adults are busy. But what if these apps also became a source of fun for children AND their parents? What if their designs were also inclusive of adults, creating engaging, learning interactions? This was a key goal for our Reach Every Reader PreK team. We wanted to not only create a research-based literacy experience for children to share with their parents, but also change the way parents perceive and use apps for early readers. Experts have made it clear that adults play a very strong role in supporting children’s early literacy development. By fostering parent participation in educational app play, we hoped to open more possibilities for personalizing children’s educational play, encouraging parent-child interactions that were authentically enjoyable for parents, and ensuring such play would not feel like a heavy undertaking for parents.

The challenge was that there weren’t many existing models on which to base our app designs. We knew we would create mobile apps to maximize accessibility and we knew the end goal of prompting engaging parent-child literacy interactions, but examples for what such apps might look like were limited. Luckily, for our PreK team, this was a welcomed challenge.

We first had to consider what would help parents find the time to participate in co-play. Parents are busy, so we strived to accommodate their schedules. Our solution: Quick games of back-and-forth conversation that can be played during weekly routines together (e.g., grocery shopping, waiting for appointments to start, when preparing meals, etc). 

But, we also had to make sure we could keep parents coming back, so we were driven to make the experience genuinely enjoyable for parents. We created literacy experiences that could prompt playful daily interactions – sparking creativity through role playing and storytelling, discussing new topics with their children (e.g., emotions, past events, upcoming events, etc), and building off familiarity (e.g., common nursery rhymes). Then, we thought, what better way to celebrate these joyful learning experiences than to capture them? 

We decided to give parents the opportunity to create keepsakes of their bonding experiences with their children – for themselves and for sharing with others. We incorporated video, audio, and photos into our app designs, allowing parent-child dyads to capture personal recordings of their playful interactions. We also encouraged families to use their existing family photos during app play, weaving their favorite memories into the playful present. While these design decisions were made to engage parents in co-play with their children, we also recognized that most parents weren’t used to playing such educational apps. 

That’s why we needed to make sure we scaffolded parents’ involvement. For example, after a long day at work, parents’ creativity juices for conversation and story-making may not flow generously, so we integrated suggestions/ideas into the games, in case parents needed an extra boost of inspiration. It was also possible that some parents were not as familiar with the literacy learning outcomes our apps aimed to teach, so we also incorporated access to tips if they desired additional support. To further scaffold, we made tips and tools optional for parents to use – giving parents the guidance they may need at times, while also not promoting reliance on such tools. Ideally, parents who need the tools at first (and on exhausting days) would gradually reduce their use of the tools to the point where they no longer need them.

Time will tell which of these design features are particularly beneficial and valued by parents. In the meantime, we hope that the overarching goal of engaging parent-child co-play becomes a common goal for educational app designers. With our innovative approach to co-play app design, we hope to spark a new interest in parents to engage in literacy-rich play with their children, whether they use an app for that or not!




Melissa Callaghan is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Education.